As an instructor of Spanish and Portuguese, I design my classes to meet the standards of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). The standards include five goal areas, summarized as the “five C’s of foreign language education”: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities (http://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/StandardsforFLLexecsumm_rev.pdf). Not surprisingly, language teachers have long possessed many resources for achieving these goals, and faculty from other disciplines would probably find it natural that second language pedagogy should foster a comparative perspective on cultural practices and language-specific bodies of knowledge. However, one of the best aspects of teaching a second language is the amount of freedom that it grants the instructor to introduce materials from his or her own interests. I have always believed that language classes are more engaging when instructors demonstrate a genuine passion for the subject and make connections to their own lives. For example, I enjoy including information about my favorite soccer teams in Argentina and Brazil, references to Don Quijote, and music videos from across the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking worlds. Recently, I have discovered another way to combine my hobbies with the ACTFL standards in the classroom: teaching language and culture through a virtual planetarium.
At first glance, nothing could seem more out of place in a foreign language classroom than a discussion of astronomy. As a science, astronomy is based on numerical data that transcend language barriers, so an understanding of physics and mathematics is much more important than, for example, Spanish. Nonetheless, if we think of “backyard” astronomy, as well as the cultural bases for how different human groups imagine the night sky, the study of a second language can open doors to a rich new perspective on the universe. If the language being studied is spoken in a different latitude, or especially a different hemisphere, geographical differences can come into play, revealing an unfamiliar set of constellations, a virtual “astronomical tour” of the foreign country.
I have used the virtual planetarium Stellarium, a free open-source program, to introduce my students to the night sky in Argentina. Stellarium is available for download at http://www.stellarium.org/. Here is a sample of how I use the software:
As shown in the attached photograph, I set the location to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and change the program language to Spanish. Students learn about the stars in the southern hemisphere, see Spanish-language constellation names, and discover cultural differences. For example, the stars of Orion’s Belt are known as Las Tres Marías (the three Marys) in Spanish, and here one can speak of the importance of Catholicism in traditional Latin American culture. The virtual planetarium also allows students to practice different linguistic functions, such as working with the cardinal directions and forming comparisons and superlatives (this star is brighter than that one; this star is the brightest). The constellation artwork included with Stellarium (not activated in the screen capture) provides an opportunity to practice vocabulary related to the star myths.
One of the most rewarding experiences while traveling in the southern hemisphere is to see the Southern Cross, Centaur, the Magellanic Clouds, and the Galactic Center of the Milky Way. Virtual planetaria such as Stellarium bring these images to the classroom, helping students to connect with life in Latin America through the language of instruction. My hope is that, upon seeing my enthusiasm toward backyard astronomy in Argentina, my students will be encouraged to continue exploring in Spanish.